Larry Nance

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Report: Lakers have “given up” on trading Deng, won’t include picks, young star

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When Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss signed Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng to oversized deals a couple of summers ago, part of their logic was they could include them in trades to bring an elite player to Los Angeles — these were big contracts but for useful players who could be moved. It was a terrible misreading of those players and the market. For the Lakers to move Mozgov last summer they had to attach former No. 2 pick D'Angelo Russell (a guy the Lakers were ready to move on from after drafting Lonzo Ball, but still this is a high pick they had to throw in to make it work).

The Lakers aren’t adding enough to the mix to move Luol Deng and are likely not going to be able to trade him, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on their Full Court Press show (transcription via Lakers Outsiders).

“You talk to teams around the league, no one is bailing the Lakers out with Deng’s contract. They’re not. Teams have asked for multiple first-round picks. They’ve asked for Brandon Ingram. They’ll ask for Kyle Kuzma. The Lakers have essentially given up on the idea that they can trade Deng.”

The Lakers shouldn’t move their future picks (they can’t deal anything to 2020), they need to keep building their foundation.

However, the Lakers need to move Deng to create the cap space for two max contracts next summer, which is still the goal (even if they are a longshot to land LeBron James). Not being able to trade Deng for an expiring contract means the Lakers will have to waive and stretch him, or as Eric Pincus cleverly suggested extend him a couple years, then waive and stretch him to lower the annual hit (but it will go on longer).

Even if the Lakers do that, they will still need to trade Jordan Clarkson (something Wojnarowski said they are confident they can do) and trade, or just let walk, Julius Randle. The Lakers also could not bring back Brook Lopez orKentavious Caldwell-Pope (both free agents), and they would need to let go of Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant and Tyler Ennis. That’s a lot of good depth gone from the roster, essentially leaving the core (Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Larry Nance Jr.) with the two max contract guys (if not LeBron, how about Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins?).

The Lakers likely will try to trade for Cousins or George at the deadline, but right now the Pelicans and Thunder are not moving those guys. The Lakers will have to wait to land them this summer.

Los Angeles also could sign just one max contract player this summer, then re-sign Randle or bring back Caldwell-Pope (or another non-max free agent) and count on growth. That likely does not make the Lakers instant contenders, but then again would adding Geroge and Cousins do that?

 

Five things to watch in NBA on Christmas Day

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For many fans, Christmas Day is the unofficial start of the NBA season. Forget the fact that things are kind of already decided — last year 13 of the 16 NBA teams that made the playoffs were already in that position, the season before it was 14 out of 16 — this is the day many fans start really paying attention to the NBA because football is winding down. So what should you be watching for on Christmas Day? We’re going to help you out with five things to keep an eye on.

1) Joel Embiid vs. Kristaps Porzingis: Battle of the modern big men. First, a plea to the basketball gods: Please let them play. Both played in their team’s most recent games, but in both cases the teams are understandably thinking about the long term and being cautious rather than just throwing them out there injured to win a December game. Whether or not Embiid plays for the Sixers may determine just how entertaining this game is: When Embiid is on the court the Sixers play at the level of a 56 win team, but when he is off the court they play at the level of a 24 win team (by net rating). He matters that much to them.

Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis are must watch because they epitomize how the modern NBA big man is evolving — when teams talk about “going small” it doesn’t have to be literally smaller. It’s about the style of play. If you’ve got a 7-footer who can step out and stretch the floor on offense, who is athletic enough to switch on defense and cover a guard on the pick-and-roll, plus get back and defend the rim, then you are playing “small.” Embiid and Porzingis can both do those things. Both have become the face of the franchise and cornerstone building blocks in the “small ball era” because of the versatility of their skills. And both are incredibly hard to defend.

Embiid is ahead on the growth curve right now because he is a bigger force defensively, plus he is more able to punish smaller defenders in the post. Porzingis is better as a threat from three, he and Frank Ntilikina have developed a good pick-and-pop chemistry that will be hard for the Sixers to defend.

Rarely will they be matched up on each other (keep an eye on Kyle O'Quinn, who should get a lot of run for New York) but watch them play and see the future of the big man in the NBA.

2) The Cavaliers vs. Warriors rivalry continues. LeBron James is among those who have said Cavs/Warriors isn’t a rivalry. Um, yes it is — you meet three straight seasons in the NBA Finals and it’s a rivalry. End of discussion.

Both of these teams are once again near the top of their respective conferences while not playing terribly focused basketball so far this season — both understand their season really starts mid-April. Also, both teams will be without a star guard: Stephen Curry is still out for the Warriors (right ankle sprain), and Isaiah Thomas (hip) will make his debut in the Cavaliers uniform later in the week but not on Christmas day.

Not that this game is lacking star power. LeBron James, playing at an MVP level this season while carrying a ridiculous workload, will be looking to measure where his team stacks up against the bar every team in the NBA is trying to clear. Kevin Durant has been the focal point since Curry went down, averaging 32.3 points per game, 9.6 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game (all while playing the best defense of his career). Then there is Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Love, and Dwyane Wade all suiting up in this one.

What makes this matchup an especially tantalizing mid-season game is these teams know each other and the scouting reports so well. Most NBA games teams might tweak their defense — “go under the pick vs. this point guard” — or try to massage their rotation a little for matchups, but basically, in the regular season they play their game. Teams are who they are. Come the playoffs there can be significant adjustments to take advantage of weaknesses or matchups — because the Warriors and Cavaliers know each other so well we will see far more of the chess match. They know the scouting reports and can fall back on them in a way they cannot against most teams during the season.

Plus, both these teams know this could well be a Finals preview again. It’s not a statement game, but winning can be a confidence boost (especially for the Cavaliers).

3) Houston’s offense vs. Oklahoma City’s defense. The Houston Rockets don’t just have the best offense in the NBA this season — 113.7 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com — but they are on pace to have the best offense in NBA history. They have been insanely good.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have the third-best defense in the NBA this season, it is the reason that while their “you take a turn, then I take a turn” offense has stumbled to start the season, the Thunder are now three games over .500 and the five seed in the West.

In a matchup of strengths, who comes out on top? The Thunder can throw Paul George and Andre Roberson at James Harden as defenders, with Steven Adams patrolling the paint behind them. The ball will be in Harden’s hands a lot, without Chris Paul the Rockets have become the Harden show again (he had two 51-point games in a row). The Rockets are jacking up a historic-pace of 43.1 threes per game (hitting 37.1 percent as a team) and the Thunder are not particularly good at chasing opposing teams off the arc — if Houston gets clean looks they will win this game.

In reality, this game may be won by which is better between the Rockets defense (which has been top 10 in the NBA this season but terrible in two recent losses) or the Thunder offense (which has been better lately, with more Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony accepting an off-the-ball role). The improving Thunder — winners of four in a row — may also come in with a chip on their shoulder, seeing this as a chance to make a “we are who you thought we were before the season” statement.

But the fun part watching is how the Thunder defense lines up when Harden has the ball.

4) The symphony of Boston’s team play (not just Kyrie Irving). This is just another game for Kyrie Irving, because Christmas is not really a holiday to him, it’s just another day for a televised game. Whatevs.

Irving is getting all the hype — and early MVP talk in some quarters — but Boston is the ultimate team this season. The Celtics are no one-man show, they are a unit with Brad Stevens pulling all the right strings. Their defensive switching is sublimely smooth and beautiful, and Al Horford is having his best defensive season, serving as a backstop in the paint and a guy who can contest a little on the perimeter. Jaylen Brown has been fantastic defensively, as has Marcus Smart, and the Celtics switch just about everything. Washington will force them to do just that with lots of picks, but Boston’s defense is deep with smart players.

On offense, Irving is playing within the system (most of the time), and Horford’s jack-of-all-trades game plays brilliantly in this offense. Jayson Tatum is getting open looks, and to his credit, the rookie is not hesitating to pull the trigger — he has a ridiculously good 49.5 percent three-point shooting percentage, and his true shooting percentage is 64.6. That’s incredible for a perimeter player (or even a guy who gets his shots at the bucket). Boston moves the ball, moves off the ball, and gets clean looks.  Watch Boston and enjoy the NBA’s best team this season.

5) Will Lakers show Timberwolves what grit looks like? Minnesota is 19-13 on the season, they are loaded with young talent led by Karl-Anthony Towns, they have the fifth best offense in the NBA, and they are on pace to break a playoff draught that dates back to when “Hollaback Girl” was just released (the longest in the NBA).

Still, Minnesota feels like a mirage, a team not as good as their talent or record (they have played the second easiest schedule in the league so far). They have the 25th ranked defense in the NBA and Towns — despite his world of talent and potential — is disinterested on that end of the court. The Timberwolves are getting wins because coach Tom Thibodeau is running his stars into the ground — Andrew Wiggins is third in the NBA in minutes played, Towns seventh, and Jimmy Butler is 14th. There are rumors all over the league of friction between Thibodeau and his young stars.

Christmas Day the Timberwolves take on a Lakers team that is also is young, not quite as talented, but plays hard every night for coach Luke Walton, defends, and shows grit. The Lakers have shown the heart Minnesota lacks. The Lakers have been playing better lately as Lonzo Ball’s decision making and shooting are showing more confidence, as Brandon Ingram is developing into a dangerous scoring threat, and as Kyle Kuzma keeps scoring like a guy who belongs in the Rookie of the Year conversation. Los Angels gets a lot out of guys like Josh Hart and Julius Randle, and Larry Nance Jr. is a keeper and a draft steal by the Lakers. Walton trusts his young players, goes deep into his bench every game, and has the Lakers with the seventh best defense in the NBA this season (although it has had a couple stumbles of late).

Who wins out, the more talented team with the franchise player, or the team playing more as a unit and with more grit? It makes an interesting desert to a strong NBA lineup on Christmas Day.

Larry Nance Jr. with Dunk of the Year candidate on Kevin Durant

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LOS ANGELES — Monday night at Staples Center belonged to Kobe Bryant.

Well, except for the moment when Larry Nance Jr. destroyed Kevin Durant with a dunk at the end of the first half.

Durant started his own problem with an ill-advised look-ahead pass that was deflected and stolen, leading to a transition chance the other way. And Nance — who may have had the best dunk of last season on Brook Lopez —  knows how to finish.

Report: Luol Deng, Lakers working on trade, buyout options. It will happen, eventually

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Luol Deng started on opening night for the Lakers against the Clippers, and he played a little more than 13 minutes that night.

Deng hasn’t seen the court since.

With the Lakers focused on their deep pool of young, athletic fours — Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle, even a little Brandon Ingram — Deng isn’t in the team’s plans. Right now, he’s a veteran mentor for these young players, but he wants to be more than that. Deng wants to play.

Deng and his agent have talked to the Lakers about finding a deal, but it could be a while, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Deng said he and his agent, Jeff Austin from Octagon sports, have been working with the Lakers to find a resolution to the situation — either via trade or buyout — but he understands it may take weeks, months or even years to settle as he has two years and $26 million remaining on his contract after this year…

“You just never know. It could be a month, it could be a week, it could be three months,” Deng said. “I don’t want something to happen and I’m called upon but my shape holds me back. The challenge is to challenge yourself to be in better shape than if I was playing. Then if I fall short I’m still in good shape.”

It’s not going to be years, but a trade could come after the season. The Lakers want to move Deng and that $26 million before free agency opens next July 1, which would put them much closer to having space for two max contracts on the roster. Then they will go big game hunting. However, to get a team to take on Deng (and not send back a contract that goes beyond this season), the Lakers are going to have to attach one of those young assets — the smart money is on Randle — to the deal to make it work for the other side.

The Lakers could buyout Deng, even waive and stretch him, but that doesn’t get Deng completely off the books and would kill the two max contract dream. Meaning don’t expect to see this.

Deng, for his part, says he just wants to play and prove he can still do it at an NBA level. He’s in shape, he just wants the opportunity.

“I’ve always given it everything. Every single team that I’ve played for, every single person would tell you that I’ve given it everything every single day. That’s the toughest part for me because I’m so used to competing and giving it everything. I’m also used to not doing great and turning it around. My whole life, every time I’ve been down, I’ve found a way to turn it around.”

Three Things to Know: Damian Lillard knows what time it is

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Damian Lillard knows what time it is, drains game winner to beat Lakers. Portland was hot all night from three, starting the game 6-of-7 from deep and racing out to an 18-point lead early. The young Lakers fought back to make it a game in the second and third (thanks in part to the fact Portland is terrible on defense), but more and more as the game went on Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts started calling Damian Lillard’s number, both as the pick-and-roll ball handler, and in isolation. The Lakers had no answer.

Lillard finished the night with 32 points on 18 shots, he got to the line 14 times, and when the game was on the line Stotts called for a Lillard isolation. Luke Walton countered with the very long Brandon Ingram on him (why not Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?), but it didn’t matter. It’s Lillard time.

2) Bad news: Lakers’ Larry Nance Jr. breaks hand. Good news: this is team making strides. The news first: Luke Walton is going to have to find a new starting power forward for a while because Larry Nance Jr. fractured the second metacarpal in his left hand against the Blazers and is out indefinitely. Nance left the game in the third quarter after contact with Caleb Swanigan and did not return, the Lakers say he will be evaluated by team doctors Friday and a timeline will be established. Nance has averaged 11.1 points and 7.9 rebounds a game this season. Walton has to now figure out who starts in his place. Julius Randle had the starting job going into training camp and could get it back, but Walton likes Randle as a spark with the second unit so my guess is Kyle Kuzma gets the call (he had 22 points vs. Portland, but he struggles defensively). If Walton wanted to go with a veteran, Corey Brewer or Luol Deng are available.

As for the Lakers, the team is getting a little better each game, but this is what learning hard lessons feels like. The NBA is an unforgiving place. The Lakers battled back from being 18 down early and led by as many as five points in the fourth, and that’s a good sign, but closing out the Trail Blazers in Portland is hard for any team. The Lakers still have a top 10 defense this season (10th now), and they are putting out effort on that end, but their rotations are not sharp and good offenses like Portland’s will pick that apart. The Lakers’ defensive numbers will get worse, but they are improved on that end.

Lonzo Ball was much more passive than normal (0-of-2 shooting, 4 assists), not pushing the tempo in transition and not looking for his shot off picks despite the Portland big man laying off and daring him to shoot. Ball can pass, but he has to become comfortable as a shooter/scorer, that includes being better at attacking off the dribble into that space when teams play back and scoring at the rim. He’s not a threat as a scorer most nights (he scored in single digits six of the eight Lakers game) and the league is adjusting to him. Ball and Brook Lopez also learned some hard lessons about playing pick-and-roll defense, where Jusuf Nurkic tore them up as the roll man and finished with 28 points (the Laker help rotations were slow all night) and in the second half Lillard torched them. It’s a process, but Lakers fans have reason to be optimistic.

3) Spurs come out strong, go up 19 on Warriors… and it doesn’t matter. Golden State is back. San Antonio came out with great energy — they were deflecting passes and knocking the ball out of Warriors’ hands, plus contesting everything. LaMarcus Aldridge had 11 first quarter points, and after a 21-3 run the Spurs had a 19-point lead before the quarter ended.

It didn’t matter. Golden State found its groove, went on a 15-4 run before halftime and a 20-8 run to open the third quarter and that was the ballgame. The Warriors shot 51.8 percent overall, 50 percent from three, and held San Antonio 35.9-percent shooting in the second half. The Warriors we all expected are back, they have cured their championship hangover, and the rest of the league is searching for answers they will not find.

Klay Thompson had 27 points, Kevin Durant 24, and Stephen Curry had 21. Draymond Green pitched in 16 plus was key defensively, as always.